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[Editorial] Embarrassing figures

President Lee Myung-bak emphasized the need to enhance public safety awareness during his radio address this week. He said various accident-related statistics made “us still ashamed to say that we are on the threshold of becoming an advanced nation.”

A review of the actual figures shows his remarks are far from exaggerated.

The annual death toll from traffic accidents, industrial accidents and fires exceeded 15,000 and the overall economic loss incurred by them amounted to 32 trillion won ($27.3 billion) last year, according to government statistics.

About 12 per 100,000 people were killed in traffic accidents, with the ratio being the highest among the 34 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development except for Greece.

The death toll from industrial accidents reached nine per 100,000 workers, which was the third-highest in the OECD, behind Turkey and Mexico. The ratio was about five times higher than those for Germany at 1.6 and Japan at 2.

As Lee noted, a truly advanced country is one in which every citizen can lead life in a safe environment and the gloomy figures remind us that Korea still has a long way to go before becoming such a state.

No effort should be spared to further enhance public safety awareness and strengthen measures to reduce casualties and property damage from accidents.

Despite his lamentation, the Lee administration has received a low appraisal for its safety policies ― especially regarding the workplace.

A report published this week showed most experts viewed its efforts toward enhancing industrial safety as insufficient.

About 36.5 percent of the experts surveyed said the administration has not tried hard enough to work out measures to improve workplace safety over the past four years.

Only 20 percent replied it has done so, with the rest seeing its efforts as making no difference.

The overall loss from industrial accidents amounted to 18.1 trillion won last year, up nearly 2 trillion won from 2007 when Lee was elected to the five-year presidency.

Accordingly, his administration received the lowest score of 222 on safety performance, compared with 268 and 246 for the two preceding governments of Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung, respectively.

The prevailing view among experts is that debates on workplace safety have become far less vigorous under Lee’s presidency, with the policy focus put on stimulating economic growth.

In the eyes of the experts, 60 percent of whom see that safety awareness in society has been increasing in recent years, this track is detached from the public sentiment.

Lee’s remarks thus give the impression that he has jumped over his perceived underperformance on safety to lament about the embarrassing figures.

But this should not mean that it is meaningless for him to make a somewhat belated attempt at calling the public’s attention to the issue.

If he is determined to do what is needed to reduce the lamentable statistics, his remaining months in office could prove to be enough time to make a significant accomplishment in enhancing workplace safety.